A fifteen-year-old boy only just becoming aware of the joys of masturbation? That I don’t buy.
This book had been around long before I had a chance to read it—there’s already been a movie made, for God’s sake! I am usually pretty slow to jump on bandwagons (I still haven’t read Harry Potter and probably never will) and honestly, the only reason I picked this up after all these years is because it was nominated as a buddy read. I had been—until now—rather disinterested: I lived through high school as a so-called geek—I didn’t need to read about it.
I approached The Perks of Being a Wallflower with optimism, all the while prepared to follow the stereotypical coming-of-age journey of a high school oddball navigating the difficulties of playground politics. For the most part, this is exactly what I got: quirky anecdotes and left-of-centre characters; unrequited love, teenage pregnancies and adolescent angst. What I hadn’t anticipated was that Charlie, the socially awkward geek narrator, would be a young man potentially on the autism spectrum who is not only coming to terms with the trauma of starting high school but the existence of his own condition. At least, that was how I read him.
A great disappointment for me with this book was that the autism subplot wasn’t pushed far enough or developed to the point where it was made explicitly clear. The lack of concrete evidence pertaining to Charlie’s life on the spectrum made reading uncomfortable at times—much of the supporting cast were ignorant, unsympathetic and even mocking of Charlie’s inability to comprehend certain situations. I even worried when he did make friends if they were somehow using him for their own entertainment (thankfully, this wasn’t the case). For me, the book would have had far more impact had the author fully committed to presenting Charlie as an intelligent, high-functioning, autistic adolescent surfing the rise and fall of relationships of his teenage years, rather than just an awkward, passive outsider watching life from the sidelines. Charlie fell somewhere in between the two, which bothered me because it simultaneously felt as though the author didn’t commit enough to the possibility of autism but pushed the ‘awkward geek’ angle too far. Perhaps I am reading too much into it and Charlie is just be your average geek, impossibly oblivious to social queues; however, a fifteen-year-old boy only just becoming aware of the joys of masturbation? That I don’t buy.
The strength The Perks of Being a Wallflower is how author Stephen Chbosky handled mental illness. As a sufferer myself, I found Charlie’s struggle with depression/anxiety and the connection between the them to be realistic. The messages he imparts to the readers through Charlie’s letters to an unknown recipient in regards to the personal, incomparable nature of pain are wonderfully insightful. This book is full of deeply powerful and memorable quotes pertaining to a range of life experiences, which no doubt resonate with readers of all ages, even if the plot itself does not.
Perks features a delightful cast of misfits, with none so captivating or complex as Charlie’s best friend, Patrick. Patrick is a fantastic character, fully developed, sympathetic and self-destructive. He is as tragic as he is endearing, and I have to say, I was far more invested in his character arc than in Charlie’s. Every moment that truly shocked me was in relation to Patrick, as most other plot twists and developments were more or less a given in the genre of high school fiction. One event I didn’t see coming (and am terribly disappointed by it’s inclusion) was the revelation made in the story’s epilogue. The foreshadowing of said event is so minimal it is practically non-existent. I dare say this shock-mongering plot point was thoughtlessly tacked on at the end to generate wow factor. For something so significant and potentially triggering for readers, it is handled very badly and contributes very little, if anything, to the narrative as a whole. It really was so, so disappointing.
In regards to narrative, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is perhaps not the most original or groundbreaking piece of literature on the market; when considered for its thematic reading, however, it becomes something truly special. Few gripes aside, Chbosky‘s debut novel is a fast-moving, enjoyable experience filled with profound insights and musings that will touch the heart of many a reader.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, first published 1999